Category: Economy

One Thing We Learned During the Pandemic: Transit’s Not Dead

SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

There’s a stat in the latest report from Commute Seattle that offers a glimmer of hope for transit advocates. In a report that otherwise shows a stark drop in transit commutes between 2019 and 2021, coupled with a dramatic rise in telecommuting—arguably a double whammy of bad news for future transit investments—there is one finding that points toward a potential transit renaissance.

The survey showed that a key bloc of downtown workers, employees at small businesses (between 1 and 49 employees), represent the greatest untapped market for transit.

According to the City’s Office of Economic Development, small business—places with 50 employees or less—make up 95 percent of Seattle’s companies. Given small businesses’ big footprint, it’s time for the city to make policy that not only serves this important workforce, but also serves Seattle’s goal to be a sustainable, green city.

In its report, Commute Seattle, the local nonprofit that facilitates alternatives to solo car commuting, describes the encouraging news this way: “Unmet demand for employer-paid transit is higher among employees at smaller worksites than their counterparts in larger ones.” In other words, despite all the doom and gloom soothsaying about transit, the untapped demand is actually there.

At a time when some urbanists are anxious about a post-pandemic world that sidelines train and bus commuting, the news that employees at small businesses would like to ride transit, but aren’t, is particularly welcome because small businesses employ an outsized percentage of the downtown workforce. The most recent info on downtown employment comes from a November 2020 report from the Office of Economic Development, which, in addition to the 95 percent number noted above, also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up provide nearly 200,000 jobs, about a third of all jobs in the city.

The numbers about transit demand tell the story: At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, more than 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use them” if they were. For companies with 10 to 49 employees, the number was 25 percent. Based on Commute Seattle’s outreach work, the people who work at small businesses citywide are overwhelmingly hospitality, restaurant, health care, and in-home health care workers, they say.

Just 23 percent of employees at the smallest companies and 32 percent of workers at larger small businesses report that subsidized transit programs are actually available and that they use them. This means that interest in transit at these small businesses totals 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, as the chart above indicates.

At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use ‘them'” if they were.

By the way, at the city’s largest companies, 100 or more employees, transit benefit usage is high, at 60 percent. This high use is easy to explain: State law requires large employers to make a “good faith effort” to use commute trip reduction plans to meet state environmental and traffic congestion goals. What jumps out about this number is that it’s about equal to the pro-transit number among employees at Seattle’s smallest businesses. This raises a question: Why is public policy only about getting white-collar workers to the job, but not employees at smaller businesses, including working-class people?

It’s worth pointing out that the high demand for transit benefits from workers at smaller businesses is coming from people who’ve yet to experience the practical benefits of transit—no gas bills, for one—at their current jobs. Just imagine how those numbers would climb if these employers offered to subsidize their ORCA cards and word spread among coworkers about the benefits. As Commute Seattle’s communication manager Madeline Feig puts it: “The best way to get people to know if transit will work for them is to get transit passes in their hands—it makes the decision easy. It is difficult for folks to know whether they would use that type of benefit if they have never had it.” In short, total interest in riding transit may be much higher than what Commute Seattle’s report suggests.

The data about the intense demand at small worksites overlaps with another reality that became clear during the pandemic: Ridership data for transit agencies nationally, including Sound Transit and Metro, showed that that people in working-class communities and communities with high BIPOC populations continued to ride, or returned more quickly to transit, during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m tying these two blocs of commuters together—those who work at small businesses and low-income and essential workers—because it reveals a strategy that could bring public transportation back to the forefront of our city vision, even as hybrid work models in the corporate world seem poised to undermine it. The strategy: Investing in public policy that brings transit to those who want it most.

“One of the most immediate actions we can take to address transportation inequities,” says Commute Seattle’s longtime program manager Nick Abel, “is offering transit opportunities to essential employees.”

Of course, subsidizing transit—or providing free transit— for 200,000 workers costs money. The good news is: Big employers are already paying. Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

Given that status quo, given the environmental and city planning pluses of getting more people on transit, and given the unmet demand, it would make sense to replace this private cost with a broader, progressive business tax (smaller businesses pay less) to cover both the current cost at big companies and the cost to bring in new riders from small businesses.

Josh@publicola.com

Editor’s note: Columnist Josh Feit is an employee of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency. His views do not represent the agency’s.

City Attorney Will Speed Up Case Filings, 21 Homeless Men Died in January Cold, Democrats Propose Sales Tax Holiday

1. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced Monday that her office will begin deciding whether to file charges in misdemeanor cases within five business days of receiving a referral from law enforcement. In a statement, Davison said the move is necessary to prevent her office’s current 5,000-case backlog from growing.

“The best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department,” Davison said. The strategy began as a recommendation from Brian Moran, who previously worked for three state attorneys general and as the US Attorney for Western Washington. Moran joined the City Attorney’s Office last month, in part to advise Davison on how to manage the backlog of criminal cases.

Speedier filing decisions could create some logistical challenge further downstream in Seattle’s criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the Seattle Municipal Court’s capacity to hold hearings, and each misdemeanor case may require multiple hearings. The court has the capacity to hold two trials a week, and in recent months, it has averaged only one trial per week.

Meanwhile, King County jails are facing a staffing shortage, exacerbated by a recent outbreak of COVID-19 among staff and inmates, that has prompted the union representing King County’s corrections officers to raise the alarm about unsafe and inhumane living and working conditions for inmates and staff. While misdemeanor defendants make up a small portion of those incarcerated in King County jails, an uptick in the number of misdemeanor charges filed by the City Attorney’s Office could also increase the number of people held in jail while awaiting a hearing on their misdemeanor charges.

2. Last week, records released by the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that 21 men experiencing homelessness died outside or in public in January 2022, the largest number since the previous high of 30 in December 2020.

Women In Black distributed a list of the people who died unsheltered during January last week.

Of the 21, four died of confirmed hypothermia, and another died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his car, a cause of death that indicates he was trying to stay warm. All five of these deaths occurred the week after Seattle and King County closed their severe weather shelters closed their severe weather shelters on the morning of January 3. During the week after the winter shelters closed, overnight lows in Seattle ranged from 32 to 38 degrees.

Twelve of the 21 men died of confirmed overdoses, according to the medical examiner.

3. To ease the burden Washington’s regressive sales tax puts on low-income and working-class people, House Democrats proposed a bill that would create a “sales tax holiday” during Labor Day weekend this year.

If passed, shoppers would be exempt from paying sales taxes when they purchase school supplies, clothes, over-the-counter drugs, computers and similar electronics, and other qualified products under $1000 during the three-day holiday.

Rep. Dave Paul (D-10, Whidbey Island) sponsored the bill. He told the House Finance Committee at a public hearing that back-to-school shopping “makes September a very lean month” for “working and needy families” and a sales-tax holiday is a way to reduce the negative financial impacts. Continue reading “City Attorney Will Speed Up Case Filings, 21 Homeless Men Died in January Cold, Democrats Propose Sales Tax Holiday”

Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)

Seattle Metro Chamber President & CEO Rachel Smith. Photo by Alabastro Photography

By Rachel Smith

Global pandemic. Racial reckoning. Economic recession. Capital insurrection. Massive joblessness. Vaccine shortage. Unprecedented times.

This is the backdrop of the moment when I optimistically started in my new role as President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. And yes, I say optimism; optimism that comes from our region’s demonstrated ability to rebound and reimagine itself, as well as optimism about how the Chamber can play a central role in the work ahead. Today, we’re starting to see more signs of hope – and I’m even more excited to help lead one of our region’s civic voices as we begin to slowly emerge from these incredibly challenging times.

In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

First and foremost on my to-do list is driving a robust and inclusive regional economic recovery, and that starts with helping struggling small businesses secure federal PPP loans – including pro bono CPA services and connection to lenders; handing out PPE, helping business with Public Health guidance, standing up partnerships to distribute vaccines, and advocating for continued state and federal relief for employers.

Equity and inclusion are also core pillars of that recovery agenda, and we need to focus our economic tools and resources to create a change in outcomes. The Chamber will work to build wealth in historically excluded communities by investing in the retention and expansion of BIPOC-owned businesses, as well as providing all of our members with resources and guidance on becoming more anti-racist institutions.

Emerging from this pandemic in a position of strength also requires partnership with public officials and leaders throughout our region. I believe strongly that we accomplish the biggest things and make the most transformative change for the most people when we work in coalition – government, business, labor, and community. This moment does not call for small-ball victories; it calls for working together in common purpose to ensure that employers survive, people stay employed, the region is prosperous, and everyone has access to that prosperity.

That is the way I intend to lead at the Chamber—working in partnership to accomplish big things. And as with any new leader, you’ll see some changes. One of the first is a new approach to local and regional elections this year. In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

These issues include:

  • Specific economic recovery actions to ensure that large employers are able to bring employees back to safe and welcoming business districts, including downtown Seattle, and that small businesses can keep their doors open and attract the volume of customers they need.
  • Working toward racial justice to address longstanding and ongoing inequities
  • Utilizing strategies to address affordability issues so that people of all income levels can afford to live in our region.
  • Making real and sustained progress on homelessness, to bring people inside and provide access to services they need.
  • Implementing police reform and building trust in communities of color, in tandem with a robust plan to keep people and businesses safe.
  • Maintaining our aging infrastructure and a long-range vision for the future of transit and mobility.
  • Delivering on local government basics: light and power, garbage and recycling, potholes and sidewalks, parks and neighborhoods, employees and administration.

Why this switch from endorsements? We believe everyone who gains the trust of the voters and is elected to office has the responsibility to lay out their approach and commit to specific actions to solve our greatest challenges.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue. Every candidate elected should have a plan to keep and grow jobs – not just candidates looking for the Chamber’s endorsement. Every candidate needs to share their plan for how they will address homelessness – plans measured not just in taxes raised and dollars spent, but in outcomes achieved and how many fewer people are spending their nights outside. Every candidate needs to talk about how they plan to deliver on the things we count on local government to provide – like dependable city services, community safety, and reliable transportation options.

And the Chamber can play a role in informing and educating the business community and the public about the issues, the candidates, and their plans. Continue reading “Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)”

Fizz: Revenue Rebounds, SPD Negotiations Delayed, and Sawant Slams Lazy Recall Campaign Mail

Stock photo models against Sawant!

1. Washington state’s latest revenue forecast shows tax revenue increasing $3.3 billion through 2023, a major jump from the Washington State Economic Revenue and Forecast Council’s most recent (November) projection. The new projection is an improvement on what had already been an upward trend after a grim forecast last June predicted $8.8 billion in lost revenue through 2023, and brings the state much closer to its pre-pandemic $52.3 billion projection.

Wednesday’s report shows that the state’s revenue recovery is being driven by speedy vaccine distribution, the two federal stimulus packages that passed in December and March, which gave qualifying Washington state residents $600 and $1,400 checks–the $4.25 billion expected to go to the state was not factored into the forecast–, and near-record high taxable activity from real estate transaction and higher than predicted retail sales.

Andy Nicholas, senior fellow at the progressive Washington State Budget and Policy Center, says it’s no surprise sales taxes and real estate excise taxes are keeping the economy afloat. “Our whole tax code is propped up by lower- and middle-income working people in Washington state,” he said. “The gains that we’re seeing are gains from a tax code that disproportionately put responsibility for funding public services that we all benefit [from] on those with low- or moderate incomes and asks very little from those at the top.”

Nicholas says the state is currently stuck in a position where it can only hope to keep funding for public services at the same amount they were before the pandemic—which he says was not enough.

Several bills in the house and senate, like the capital gains tax (SB 5096) and the wealth tax (HB 1406), hope to fix the state’s tax code and get wealthy residents to pay more. Democratic budget proposals for the next biennium, likely coming next week, may indicate what taxes they expect to pass this session.

The Office of Financial Management said in a press release on Wednesday, “The increase in projected revenues would leave the state with a net surplus of nearly $3 billion — including reserves — at the end of current biennium.” The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will infuse an additional $12 billion into the state and may help maintain programs, but ultimately the money is only a one-time infusion and needs to be spent by 2024. Washington state has received roughly $20 billion in federal aid since the start of the pandemic.

“This is moment where we need to be making big and bold investments in communities,” Nicholas said. While the federal aid will help, “[The government} needs to be thinking about how we are going to set ourselves up for long-term adequate level funding and that has to be done with new, equitable sources of revenue.”

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2. If Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes’ prediction is correct, the city’s labor negotiation team won’t sit down to negotiate with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) until after new mayor takes office in 2022.

In a presentation to the Community Police Commission on Wednesday, Holmes hypothesized that contract negotiations with the city’s largest police union “probably” won’t begin “until sometime next year,” and that the negotiators may not have finalized the “parameters” for bargaining—the ground rules for the process—by the time the next mayor is inaugurated in January. He also suggested the next mayor could begin the search for a permanent police chief at roughly the same time; current Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz stepped into the role when former Chief Carmen Best retired on short notice in September 2020, and Mayor Jenny Durkan has declined to begin the search for a permanent during her term.

Contract negotiations with city employee unions can be a lengthy process—the last round of bargaining with SPOG ended in 2018 after more than a year of negotiations. At that time, SPOG members had been working under an expired contract since 2014. The 2018 contract expired at the beginning of this year, so SPOG members will once again work under an expired agreement for the foreseeable future.

Delayed negotiations would also mean that the numerous controversial features of the 2018 SPOG contract will remain in effect for at least the coming year. Before the Seattle City Council approved the contract in November 2018—responding in part to pressure from Durkan to approve raises for union members—police accountability advocates, including the CPC, condemned the agreement for undercutting years’ worth of advocacy and a landmark 2017 ordinance that strengthened police oversight and discipline. Continue reading “Fizz: Revenue Rebounds, SPD Negotiations Delayed, and Sawant Slams Lazy Recall Campaign Mail”

Ballot Measure Would Reinstate Sweeps, Harrell Joins Mayor’s Race, and Republicans Hedge Bets on Capital Gains

The look on mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell’s face when KOMO TV’s Jonathan Choe asked how he felt about Black-on-Asian crime, given that “you’re biracial, your mother is Japanese American and your dad’s Black”

1. After months of will-he-won’t-he speculation, three-term former city council member Bruce Harrell announced Tuesday that he’s running for mayor. As a well-known political figure who will likely have support from the Seattle business community, Harrell joins the ranks of instant frontrunners in the race, which also includes current city council president Lorena González, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk, South East Effective Development director Lance Randall, and city council aide Andrew Grant Houston.

At a press conference outside Garfield High School, his alma mater, Harrell said he would seek public-private partnerships to fund investments in solutions to homelessness, clean up city parks where unsheltered people have taken long-term refuge during the pandemic, and work to “reimagine” the city’s police force rather than defunding it.

In a conversation with Fizz after the announcement, Harrell said the biggest problem at city hall, Harrell said, is a “lack of relationships”—between the mayor and council, the council and departments, and with outside organizations like Seattle Public Schools.

True to his past campaigns (in addition to serving three terms on the council, Harrell ran for mayor in 2013, receiving 15 percent of the primary vote), Harrell focused on style, more than policy, in our conversation. “Quite honestly, I am attracted to a situation that requires rebuilding,” Harrell said. “It’s sort of easy to hop into a leadership position when an organization is going smoothly and is high-performing. It’s a different skill set for someone to consciously jump into a situation that is plagued with dysfunction, and that doesn’t bother me.”

But he did have a few specific policy prescriptions. He said he would work to revitalize neighborhoods including, but not limited to, downtown, by promoting not just brick and mortar businesses but partnerships between small businesses (particularly women- and minority-owned) and larger ones—a kind of “business-to-business on steroids” approach to saving local businesses. “The first thing we must learn how to do is recycle our money within the economy by making sure the relationship between small businesses and big business is intact,” Harrell said.

He also said he would propose divvying up $10 million between the seven council districts so that the council member from each geographic area could determine, through conversations in that community, what local priorities should be funded. Asked how this would differ from the ongoing participatory budgeting process, which is supposed to determine how the city will spend $30 million set aside for alternatives to policing last year, Harrell said, “I think participatory budgeting is a step in the right direction, but what it still doesn’t do, I think, is have each council member directly accountable to their particular constituents in their community.”

Harrell, who grew up in the Central District and often talks about his deep roots in Seattle, provided more details about his platform in an “open letter” Tuesday morning.

2. Another former city council member, Tim Burgess, is preparing to propose a ballot measure that would change Seattle’s constitution (known as the city charter) by directing the city’s Human Services Department to fund mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment, expand access to shelter, and “collaboratively work with other City departments to ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.”

The proposal would mandate (but not fund) new shelter and services and reinstate sweeps, including the removal of encampments that pose a “public health or safety risk,” a term that is not defined and would be subject to interpretation.

The proposal does not appear to include a funding plan.

The charter amendment would require HSD to create a plan to provide services to people living unsheltered (along with individual written “service plans” for every person living unsheltered in the city) and would “require the cleaning and removal of unauthorized encampments in public spaces as these services are available.” In addition, any encampment that poses “a public health or safety risk may be immediately removed,” the proposed amendment says.

In plain language, the proposal would mandate (but not fund) new shelter and services and reinstate sweeps, including the removal of encampments that pose a “public health or safety risk,” a term that is not defined and would be subject to interpretation.

It also directs HSD to work with prosecutors, police, and public defenders to create new “diversion” programs for people who commit non-violent offenses; these programs would include unspecificed “treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.”

Burgess did not respond to a request for comment.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

To place a charter amendment on the ballot, proponents must get signatures from as many registered voters as 15 percent of the turnout in the most recent mayoral election, or about 33,000 people. After that, the city council can choose to enact the amendment, put it on the ballot, or add their own alternative to the mix. This last scenario played out in 2014, when the council proposed an alternative to a preschool initiative that opponents said gave too much power to unions. The council’s winning alternative was sponsored by Tim Burgess.

3. Despite claiming the Democrats’ capital gains tax legislation (SB-5096) would put an unconstitutional law in place, Republicans are worried that if it passes, taking the law to the Supreme Court will backfire and open the door for an income tax.

Luckily for the Republicans, moderate Democratic Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) added an amendment to the capital gains tax during  the Senate vote that stripped the bill of its emergency clause and took out language saying that the revenue from the legislation is tied to government functions. Legislation with an emergency clause, or legislation that includes language saying it’s necessary to support the functioning of state government, can’t be overturned by voter referendum. The removal of both sections clearly signals that opponents prefer to leave the bill open to a statewide referendum, rather than battling over its legality in court. Continue reading “Ballot Measure Would Reinstate Sweeps, Harrell Joins Mayor’s Race, and Republicans Hedge Bets on Capital Gains”

Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”

Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision

by Josh Feit

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.

The $155,000 save is on track to be part of  next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”

That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)

The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.

Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision”

Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

By Erica C. Barnett

The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 million in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the city’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20 percent, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

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During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC added, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars, in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” — Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the city council

In reporting on the council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes council members are proposing—from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the city’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-takes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police,

Major cuts to the mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the city council approves the spending plan.

Participatory budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD. Continue reading “Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department”

Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context”

Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant

The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.

We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.

But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.

The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.

When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.

Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.

The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)

Continue reading “Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief”